MIND MELD: Is SF Still The “Big Idea” Genre?

[This week's question was submitted by an SF Signal reader. Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

Recently Neal Stephenson wrote an article for the World Policy Journal titled “Innovation Starvation“. In the article he discussed the serious lack of innovation in science today. Later in the article, he discusses a presentation that he made at the Future Tense conference where he said that good science fiction supplied “a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.” One scientist that he talked to complained that SF writers are slacking off, saying that SF writers need “to start supplying big visions that make sense.” With Planetary Resources announcing their plan to mine the asteroids, it seems that reality may be encroaching on science fiction’s “big idea” territory.

We asked this week’s panelists:

Q: Are SF writers “slacking off” or is science fiction still the genre of “big ideas”? If so, what authors are supplying these ideas for the next generation of scientists and engineers?

Here’s what they said…

Alexis Glynn Latner
Alexis Glynn Latner‘s science fiction novel Hurricane Moon was published by Pyr in 2007. Twenty-three of her novelettes and short stories have been or will be published in science fiction magazines, especially Analog, and horror and mystery anthologies. She also does editing, teaches and coaches creative writing, and works in the Rice University Library.

Possibly neither. The arc of big, epochal, scientific ideas may have run its course in science fiction – having flowed on into nonfiction and reality. In addition to asteroid mining, think about Google as an example. Bruce Sterling remarked at a convention that despite a unitary artificial superintelligence being a big idea in SF, there hasn’t been one invented, but there’s such an amazing, unanticipated thing as the distributed intelligence of Google searching and all.

I don’t think SF writers are slacking – although many on the advice of editors and agents have been writing fantasy because it sells better. Some are creating alloys of SF and fantasy. In the century we’re in now, for a big idea to catch fire with the upcoming scientists and engineers it may have to be not just an an overweening head trip, but a profound heart trip as well.
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We turn our attention to book cover art this week. A good cover can mean more sales for a book…but what makes a good cover? We asked this week’s panelists this question:

Q: It’s generally well accepted that a book cover’s primary responsibility is to sell the book. But artistically speaking, what makes a successful sf/f/h book cover? Which recent sf/f/h books had a cover that blew you away?

Here’s what they said…

Dave Seeley
Dave Seeley was an award winning architect before punting and becoming an illustrator. Happy mucking about with both computers and oil paint, Dave’s SF work is heavily influenced by sci-fi film noir. Dave’s recent client’s include Baen Books, Tor, Random House, Lucasfilm, Harlequin-Gold Eagle, Solaris, Harper Collins, Pyr, Midway Games and Vivendi Universal. See his work, clients, and ramblings at www.daveseeley.com.

OK… honestly, I don’t see that many book covers because I’m reading tons of sf and f book manuscripts to then DO their covers…. so when I take a break, I don’t typically head off to the bookstore…. BUT, by way of homework for Mind Meld, this morning I stopped into my local Borders, and spent some time taking a look. In the end, I learned that I should do this more often, just to stay in touch with my market. First off, clearly I need to be doing more hot-babe-w-weapon +/- tattoo images, because clearly that’s half the market nowadays. (pic one)… Now I like those jackets as much as the next id-controlled red-blooded male…but if that is the context, then things that are NOT-context tend to stand out in my quest for “blew you away.” Also, I’ve learned to be leery of my id’s attraction to cover art, in that sometimes there’s a “honeymoon period.” ;-) Anyway… I decided to go hunt in the wild for these, and not just open my latest Spectrum, because a) I didn’t want to be filtered through the Spectrum judge panel, and b) I think that book design and type solution are critical to what makes a successful book cover…. and Spectrum doesn’t show me that. I even diligently wrote down all the designers names so I could credit them, and then promptly left it on the last shelf for the Border’s custodial staff, while snapping iPhone pics. I think that type/cover design is like parenting, where it can nurture, showcase and enhance the art if attended to diligently with an insightful light touch, and so easily frak it up otherwise.

So anyway…Here’s what I came up with…

Two, right off the bat by Greg Manchess. He does exceptionally good figure work (full figured?) with a perfectly spartan but juicy brushwork and fairly unfettered backgrounds…everything I do NOT do…hmmm.. Next up came Scott Fischer’s Titans of Chaos, with a beautifully rendered heroine in a levitation trance…. really exploring the boundaries of her image crop in an unconventional way. I also love Scott’s whimsical ornamentation and color use…

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Fiction and fantasy book covers can be as awe-inspiring as the stories they are trying to sell. We asked this week’s panelists:

Q: Which are the most memorable book covers in science fiction and fantasy? (You can name up to 10.)

Read on to see their favorites …and not-so-favorites…

Dave Seeley
Dave Seeley was an award winning architect before becoming a full time illustrator. Equally at home with traditional painting methods and photo/digital methods, Dave’s SF work is heavily influenced by sci-fi film noir. Dave’s work has been commissioned by Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf and Tor, among many others.

I’m a little out of my league given that I came to SF via art, rather than books… so most of my faves are pretty contemporary. But woe be me to pass up the mike. Here’s a list of representative book jackets , by some artists I love and think are stellar sci fi heads (in no particular order).

  1. The Sky People by Greg Manchess (Full artwork)
  2. Cities of the Moon by Donato Giancola (Full artwork)
  3. The Currents of Space by John Harris (Full artwork)
  4. Mission’s End by John Berkey (Full artwork)
  5. Variable Star and Quantumscapes by Stephan Martiniere (Full artwork)
  6. Species by H R Giger (Full artwork)
  7. Star Trek: Wounds by Rick Berry (Full artwork)
  8. Dark Horse Comics Dirty Pair by Adam Hughes (Full artwork)

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SF Tidbits for 10/12/09

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